After four and a half years working mostly in secret, Anki is off to the races. The San Francisco startup, which has raised $50 million to bring robots into everyday life, is making good on that promise with a racing game powered by your iPhone. Anki Drive, which goes on sale October 23rd for $199, combines the old-school appeal of Hot Wheels toy cars with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. The resulting game is fun, challenging, and full of promise for the future. You have never seen an iPhone accessory like this one.

Anki — the word means "learn by heart" in Japanese — was founded by a trio of robotics PhDs who met as graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University: Boris Sofman, Hanns Tappeiner, and Mark Palatucci. In founding the company, their goal was to take advantage of the fact that the components for building surprisingly complex consumer products are becoming incredibly cheap.

At $199 for the starter set, Anki Drive is not exactly an impulse buy. The set includes a game mat, two cars, charging pods restore their batteries, and a nifty gadget to clean gunk out of the tires. Up to four cars can race at a time, though not cheaply: each additional car costs $69. Four models are available today, and more are expected.

The cars feel lightweight but solidly built. At first glance, they don't appear much different than ordinary Hot Wheels-style toys. In truth, though, the cars are covered with sensors, and house a tiny insect-like brain that receives instructions from players' iPhones as they make their way around the track.

The result are toys that automatically check their position relative to the track and to other cars 500 times per second. As they move, they reason about how to get ahead of their competitors, then put their gambits into motion. And they do it all very quickly — Anki says that if one of its cars were scaled up to real-world size, it would travel the equivalent of 250 mph.

The chief novelty of Anki Drive, and also its promise, lies in how it manages to make tiny toy cars so smart. All of the computational heavy lifting is done on the player's companion iPhone (not included in the starter kit, alas) which relays instructions to the cars using the Bluetooth low energy standard.